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What causes elbow pain?

Most elbow pain has a very simple cause and clears up within a few days. The pain usually comes from strained or inflamed soft tissues such as tendons. You can normally treat this pain yourself with over-the-counter painkillers and a few days' rest, and you may not need to see your doctor.

It’s important not to rest for too long as lack of movement causes your joint to stiffen and the muscles around your elbow to weaken, which increases the chance that you'll have further symptoms. Simple exercises can help to reduce the risk of future problems. Long-term elbow pain can be caused by arthritis.

Elbow arthritis

Your elbow can be affected by various types of arthritis just like any other joint in your body. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and it can affect just the elbow or a number of joints. It has many causes and can happen if you've injured your elbow in the past, for example if you've fractured the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis also commonly affects the elbow.

Read more about specific elbow problems.

Elbow stiffness

Elbow arthritis can also cause stiffness. While stiffness doesn't cause pain it can make your elbow feel uncomfortable. Losing any range of movement is called stiffness.

Stiffness can happen due to problems with your elbow joint itself, or the muscles, ligaments or covering of the joint.

Stiffness can be caused by:

  • osteoarthritis
  • fractures around your elbow
  • inflammation in the joint (e.g. if you have rheumatoid arthritis)
  • abnormal bone formation, where bone forms in the muscles around your elbow following an injury or operation - we don't know why this happens
  • soft tissue contractures, which happen when the covering tissues around the elbow shrink - this can sometimes happen following injury


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